I can tell that a novel is top-rate when I start praying for the characters. And when, on finishing the book, I sit immobilized, loathe to break the spell of the world it has brought me into. A world drawn from our own but given a shape and meaning that allows us to see something new about our own world.
So it was with Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, The Lacuna. I bought it as soon as it came out at the end of 2009, because Kingsolver’s book tour was bringing her to Tucson, where she lived for decades and where I’d just arrived to spend the winter. But I only recently read the novel. And what a reading experience: throughout, I was awed by her mastery and especially by her ability to make the powerful sweep of history come to life.
For this is a historical novel, though of an unusual sort. History itself is actually the moving force of the story: the history of the Bolshevik Revolution’s aftermath, with Stalin’s murder of Trotsky in Mexico, then America’s optimistic can-do spirit during World War II, transmuting into the ugliness of the McCarthy era and the crystallized fearfulness of the Cold War.
Some of the book’s characters, shapers and victims of this history, are historical personages: Leon Trotsky himself, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, his wife the painter Frida Kahlo.
Some of the text is comprised of newspaper clippings of the times. But the two main characters (the ones I started praying for) are fictional: a Mexican-American writer of popular historical novels and his American secretary. It is their two voices that primarily narrate the book, their two beings who make us cringe at how history can mash us.
But history for Kingsolver is not an abstract force. It is the mass hysteria created by the sinister and usually unconscious collaboration of the media and politicians. Together they stir a brew which pollutes the air we all breathe. So although the novel is set seventy-five to fifty years ago, it rings frighteningly true for our own post 9/11 times.
I’m not going to give away the plot. But I can say a bit about what the novel is doing with its title concept of lacuna. A lacuna is simply a hole…and there are lots of deliberate holes in the story. The novel’s narrative is artfully comprised of bits and pieces from the protagonist’s notebooks, his letters, congressional transcripts, and real and fictionalized newspaper articles and advertisements.
But “lacuna” is also Kingsolver’s primary thematic motif: it’s the hole that there always is in our knowledge, whether of another person or of history itself. As one of the narrators says, “the most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.” And in the plot there’s also a literal lacuna: an underwater hole in the ocean rock-shelf through which one can swim and either drown or emerge on the other side reborn into a new life, a new identity.
Finally, for a Good Letters blog I must note that this is a book about letters, about the power of words: for good or evil. About the mass media’s distortion of words to manipulate the public imagination. But also about the way that words can give hope and can help pull history back toward a trajectory of goodness. A self-effacing, self-sacrificing kindness runs through the actions of the major characters. As the protagonist writes in his journal, “nothing wondrous can come in this world unless it rests on the shoulders of kindness.”
The Lacuna is about history’s force, about the power of words, about kindness—and also about the essential role of art in general. In a novel where swirling untruths conspire to destroy people, Kingsolver puts into Frida Kahlo’s mouth a statement of the artist’s responsibility to discern and transmit truth.
Kahlo says to the novel’s protagonist when he is a young man just beginning to think about becoming a writer: “I think an artist has to tell the truth. You have to use the craft very well and have a lot of discipline for it, but mostly to be a good artist you have to know something that’s true.”